A Kiss in Time by Alex Flinn

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A Kiss in Time by Alex Flinn

  1. 1. Alex Flinn A Kiss in Time
  2. 2. For Joyce Sweeney. Thanks for everything!
  3. 3. Contents Part I Talia ix Chapter 1 If I hear one more syllable about spindles, I shall… 1 Chapter 2 Tomorrow is my sixteenth birthday. I do not suppose it… 7 Chapter 3 Free of the encumbrance that is Lady Brooke, I fairly… 17 Part II Jack 25 Chapter 1 What they don’t tell you about Europe is how completely… 27 Chapter 2 “Good thing we got food first,” Travis says on the… 33 Chapter 3 When I was a kid, back when my family was… 39 Chapter 4 It’s a castle. Not a modern-looking one like Buckingham Palace,… 45 Chapter 5 I stare at her. I’ve never seen a human being… 49 Chapter 6 She’s awake! It really is like Snow White! Holy crap!… 55
  4. 4. Chapter 7 Things get a little crazy then. There’s Travis at the… 63 Part III Jack and Talia 71 Chapter 1: Talia 73 Chapter 2: Jack 84 Chapter 3: Jack 94 Chapter 4: Talia 101 Chapter 5: Jack 105 Chapter 6: Talia 111 Chapter 7: Jack 131 Chapter 8: Talia 147 Chapter 9: Jack 151 Chapter 10: Talia 156 Chapter 11: Jack 169
  5. 5. Chapter 12: Talia 176 Chapter 13: Jack 183 Chapter 14: Talia 188 Chapter 15: Jack 194 Chapter 16: Talia 200 Chapter 17: Jack 208 Chapter 18: Talia 213 Chapter 19: Jack 220 Chapter 20: Talia 225 Chapter 21: Jack 235 Chapter 22: Talia 241 Chapter 23: Jack 251 Chapter 24: Talia 258
  6. 6. Chapter 25: Jack 266 Chapter 26: Talia 271 Chapter 27: Jack 273 Chapter 28: Talia 278 Chapter 29: Jack 280 Chapter 30: Talia 285 Chapter 31: Jack 286 Chapter 32: Talia 289 Chapter 33: Jack 290 Chapter 34: Talia 293 Chapter 35: Jack 295 Chapter 36: Talia 297 Chapter 37: Jack 301
  7. 7. Chapter 38: Talia 305 Chapter 39: Jack 311 Chapter 40: Talia 313 Chapter 41: Jack 317 Chapter 42: Talia 319 Chapter 43: Jack 326 Chapter 44: Talia 329 Chapter 45: Jack 333 Chapter 46: Talia 336 Chapter 47: Jack 339 Chapter 48: Jack 349 Chapter 49: Talia 357 Two Years Later 365 Talia 367
  8. 8. Acknowledgments About the Author Other Books by Alex Flinn Credits Cover Copyright About the Publisher
  9. 9. G G Part I j Talia = G G
  10. 10. Chapter 1 j I f I hear one more syllable about spindles, I shall surely die! From my earliest memory, the subject has been worn to death in the castle, nay, in the entire kingdom. It is said that spindle, rather than Mama or Papa, was my first word in infancy, and I have little doubt that this is true, for ’tis the word which lights more frequently than any other upon my most unwilling ears. “Talia, dearest, you must never touch a spindle,” Mother would say as she tucked me into bed at night. “I will not, Mother.” “Vous devez ne jamais toucher un axe,” my tutor would say during French lessons. “I will not,” I told him in English. “If ye spy a spindle, ye must leave it alone,” the downstairs 1
  11. 11. maid said as I left the castle, always with my governess, for I was never allowed a moment alone. Every princeling, princess, or lesser noble who came to the castle to play was told of the restrictions upon spindles— lest they have one secreted about their person somewhere, or lest they mistakenly believe I was normal. Each servant was searched at the door, and thread was purchased from outside the kingdom. Even peasants were forbidden to have spindles. It was quite inconvenient for all concerned. It should be said that I am not certain I would know a spindle if I saw one. But it seems unlikely that I ever shall. “Why must I avoid spindles?” I asked my mother, in my earliest memory. “You simply must,” she replied, so as not to scare me, I suppose. “But why?” I persisted. She sighed. “Children should be seen, not heard.” I asked several times more before she excused herself, claiming a headache. As soon as she departed, I started in on my governess, Lady Brooke. “Why am I never to touch a spindle?” Lady Brooke looked aggrieved. It was frowned upon, she knew, to scold royal children. Father was a humane ruler who never resorted to beheading. Still, she had her job to consider, if not her neck. “It is forbidden,” she said. Well, I stomped my foot and whined and cried, and when that failed to produce the desired result, I said, “If 2
  12. 12. you do not answer, I will tell Father you slapped me.” “You wicked, wicked girl! God above will punish you for such deceit!” “No one punishes princesses.” My voice was calm. I was done with my screaming, now that I had discovered a better currency. “Not even God.” “God cares not for rank and privilege. If you tell such an awful lie, you will surely be damned.” “Then you must keep me from such a sin by telling me what I wish to know.” Even at four or five, I was precocious and determined. Finally, sighing, she told me. I had been a long-wished-for babe (this I knew, for it had been told to me almost as often as the spindle speech), and when I was born, my parents invited much of the kingdom to my christening, including several women rumored to have magical powers. “You mean fairies?” I interrupted, knowing she would not speak the word. Lady Brooke was highly religious, which seemed to mean that she believed in witches, who used their magic for evil, but not fairies, who used their powers for good. Still, even at four, I knew about fairies. Everyone did. “There is no such a thing as fairies,” Lady Brooke said. “But yes, people said they were fairies. Your father welcomed them, for he hoped they would bring you magical gifts. But there was one person your father did not invite: the witch Malvolia.” 3
  13. 13. Lady Brooke went on to describe, at great length and in exhausting detail, the beauty of the day, the height of the sun in the sky, and the importance of the christening service. I closed my eyes. But when she attempted to carry me into my bedchamber, I woke and demanded, “What of the spindle?” “Oh! I thought you were asleep.” I continued to demand to know of the spindle, which led to a lengthy recitation of the gifts I had received from the various guests. I struggled to remain attentive, but I perked up when she began to describe the fairies’ gifts. “Violet gave the gift of beauty, and Xanthe gave the gift of grace, although surely such qualities cannot be given.” I did not see why not. People often remarked upon my beauty and grace. “Leila gave the gift of musical talent . . .” I noted, privately, that I was already quite skilled on the harpsichord. “. . . while Celia gave the gift of intelligence. . . .” It went without saying. . . . Lady Brooke continued. “Flavia was about to step forward to give the gift of obedience—which would have been much welcomed, if I do say so myself.” She winked at me, but the wink had a hint of annoyance which was not—I must say—appreciated. “The spindle?” I reminded her, yawning. “Just as Flavia was ready to step forward and offer her 4
  14. 14. much-desired gift of obedience, the door to the grand banquet hall was flung open. The witch Malvolia! The guards tried to stop her, but she brazened her way past them. “‘I demand to see the child!’ she said. “Your nurse tried to block her way. But quicker than the bat of an eyelash, the nurse was on the floor and Malvolia was standing over your bassinet. “‘Ah.’ She seized you and held you up for all to see. ‘The accursed babe.’ “Your mother and father tried to soothe Malvolia with tales of invitations lost, but she repeated the word ‘accursed,’ several times, and then she made good the curse itself. “‘Before her sixteenth birthday, the princess shall prick her finger on a spindle and die!’ she roared. And then, as quickly as she had arrived, she was gone. But the beautiful day was ruined, and rain fell freely from the sky.” “And then what?” I asked, far from interested in the weather now that I understood I might die by touching a spindle. Why had no one told me? “Flavia tried to save the situation with her gift. She said that since Malvolia’s powers were immense, she could not reverse her spell, but she sought to modify it a bit. “‘The princess shall not die,’ she said. But as everyone was sighing in relief, she added, ‘Rather, the princess shall sleep. All Euphrasian citizens shall sleep also, protected from harm by this spell, and the kingdom shall be obscured from sight by a giant wood, unnoticed by the rest of the world and removed from maps and memory until . . .’ People 5
  15. 15. were becoming more nervous with each pronouncement. ‘. . . one day, the kingdom shall be rediscovered. The princess shall be awakened by her true love’s first kiss, and the kingdom shall awake and become visible to the world again.’” “But that is stupid!” I burst out. “If the entire kingdom is asleep and forgotten, who will be left to kiss me?” Lady Brooke stopped speaking, and then she actually scratched her head, as persons in stories are said to do when they are trying to work some great puzzle. At the end of it, she said, “I do not know. Someone will. That is what Flavia said.” But even at my tender age, I knew this was improbable. Euphrasia was small, bounded on three sides by ocean and on the fourth by wilderness. The Belgians, our nearest neighbors, barely knew we existed, and if Euphrasia disappeared from sight and maps, the Belgians would forget us entirely. Other questions leaped to mind. How would we eat if we were all asleep? And wouldn’t we eventually die, like old people did? Indeed, the cure seemed worse than the original punishment. But to each successive question, Lady Brooke merely said, “That is why you must never touch a spindle.” And it is nigh upon my sixteenth birthday, and I have never touched one yet. 6
  16. 16. Chapter 2 j T omorrow is my sixteenth birthday. I do not suppose it necessary to explain the furor this has occasioned in the kingdom. ’Tis a heady occasion. Each year on my birthday, guests come from around the world to celebrate—and they bring gifts! Diamonds from Africa, crystal from Ireland, cheese from Switzerland. Of course, my sixteenth birthday is of special import. Rumor has it that a ship has sailed the world over, collecting items and persons for my pleasure. They say it has even visited the British colony on the other side of the world. I believe it is called Virginia. But more than guests, more even than presents, is the actual hope that this whole spindle business will end today. Before her sixteenth birthday. That was what the witch Malvolia had said. So tomorrow Mother and Father will rejoice at having completed the Herculean task of keeping 7
  17. 17. their stupid daughter away from a common household object for sixteen years, and then I can live the ordinary life of an ordinary princess. I am ready for it. It is not merely spindle avoidance that has been my difficulty thus far. Rather, because of this, I have been effectively shut out from the world. Other young maidens of my station have traveled to France, India, and even the wilds of Virginia. But I have not been permitted to make the shortest trip to the nearest kingdom, lest one of the populace there wished to attack me with a spindle. In the castle, the very tapestries seem to mock me with their pictures of places I have never seen. I am barely allowed outside, and when I am, it is only under the boring chaperonage of boring Lady Brooke or some other equally dull lady-in-waiting. I am fifteen years old, and I have never had a single friend. Who would want to be friends with an oddity who has never seen anything or done anything and is guarded night and day? Likewise, a young princess my age would ordinarily have dozens of suitors questing for her hand. Her beauty would be the subject of song and story. Duels would be fought for her. She might even cause a war, if she were beautiful enough, and I am. But though my beauty has been spoken of, raved of even, there has not been one single request for my hand. Father says it is because I am young yet, but I know that to be a lie. The reason is the curse. Any sensible prince would 8
  18. 18. prefer a bride with freckles or a hooked nose over one like me, one who might fall into a coma at any instant. There is a knock upon the door. Lady Brooke! “Your Highness, the gowns are ready for viewing,” she calls from outside. The gowns! They have been prepared especially for tomorrow. It will be the grandest party ever. The guests will arrive at the palace door in carriages or at the harbor in ships. There will be a grand dinner tonight, and tomorrow a ball with an orchestra for dancing and a second orchestra for when the first tires. There will be fireworks and a midnight supper and magnums of a special bubbling wine made by Benedictine monks in France, then a week of lesser parties to follow. It will be a festival, a Festival of Talia. I will be at the center of it, of course, courted by every prince and raja, and before it is over, I will have fallen in love— and I will be sixteen, cured of the curse. “Your Highness?” Lady Brooke continues to knock. The gowns—I need one for tonight and several for the ball tomorrow and a dozen or so more for the coming week—must be perfect. And then, perhaps Father will speak with the tailor who designed the loveliest one and have him create fifty or so more for my wedding trip around the globe. Truth be told, it is the trip, rather than the wedding, which appeals to me. I care not for marriage at someone else’s whim. But it is my lot in life, and a cross I must bear to gain the wedding trip. I am more than ready to leave Euphrasia, 9
  19. 19. having been trapped here for almost sixteen years. And, of course, my husband shall be handsome, and a prince. I fling the door open. “Well? Where are they?” Lady Brooke produces a map of the castle. I take it from her. One has to admire her organization. I see now that Lady Brooke has marked out the rooms which will be used to house our numerous royal guests. Other rooms are marked with a star. “What is this?” “On the occasion of your last birthday, you told your father that, upon the occasion of this birthday, you required ‘the most perfect gown in all the world.’ Your father took this request quite literally and sent out the call to tailors and seamstresses the world over. China’s entire haul of silkworms has been put to this task. Children have been pulled from their cottages and huts to spin and sew and slave, all for the pleasure of Princess Talia of Euphrasia.” “Very good, Lady Brooke.” I know she thinks I am silly and spoiled. Was I not gifted with intelligence? I also know this not to be the case. How can I be spoiled when I never get to do a single thing I want? I did not ask that children be pulled from their cribs to slave for me, but since they were, is it not only courteous to gaze upon their efforts and, hopefully, find a dress or two that will be acceptable? I can already picture the gown in which I shall make my grand entrance at the ball. It will be green. “The map?” “Yes, the map. Each tailor was asked to bring his twenty best creations, all in your exact measurements. Your father believed that you might be overwhelmed, gazing upon so 10
  20. 20. many gowns at once. Therefore, he decreed that they be placed in twenty-five separate rooms of the castle. In this way, you may wander about, choosing as you will.” Twenty gowns times twenty-five tailors! Five hundred gowns! I grow giddy. “We had best get started,” I tell Lady Brooke. We begin to walk down the stone hallway. The first rooms are on the floor above us, and as we climb the stairs, Lady Brooke says, “May I ask what you will do with the gowns which do not meet with your approval?” This is a trick question, I know, like all of Lady Brooke’s questions, designed to prove that I am a horrid brat. Why care I what Lady Brooke thinks? But I do, for much as I loathe her, she is my only companion, the closest thing I have to a friend. So I rack my brain for an acceptable answer. Give them to her? Surely not. The gowns were made to my exact measurements, and Lady Brooke, who has not been blessed with the gift of beauty, is an ungainly half a head taller than I, and stout. “Give them to the poor?” I say. When she frowns, I think again. “Or, better yet, hold an auction and give the money collected to the poor. For food.” There! That should satisfy the old bat! And perhaps it does. At least, she is quiet as we enter the first room. Quiet disapproval is the best I can expect from Lady Brooke. Dresses line the walls, covering even the windows. Twenty of them, in different fabrics, different shapes, but 11
  21. 21. every single one of them blue! “Was it not communicated to the tailors that my eyes are green?” I ask Lady Brooke in a whisper loud enough for the tailor to hear. I want him to. Of all the stupidity! He hears. “You want-a green dresses?” He has an accent of some sort, and when he moves closer, I see beads of sweat forming upon his forehead. Ew. I certainly hope that he has refrained from sweating over his work, which would make the fabric smell. “Not all green,” I say. “But I would not have expected all blue.” “Blue, it is the fashion this year,” the sweaty tailor says. “I am a princess. I do not follow fashions—I make them.” “I am certain one blue dress would be acceptable.” Lady Brooke tries to smooth things over with this peasant whilst glaring at me. “Talia, this man has come all the way from Italy. His designs are the finest in the world.” “What?” I say, meaning, what does this have to do with me? “I said . . . oh, never mind. Will you not look at the dresses now? Please?” I look. The dresses are all ugly. Or maybe not ugly but boring, with boring ruffles. Boring, like everything else in my life. Still, I manage to smile so as not to call out another lecture from Lady Brooke. “Lovely, thank you.” “You like?” He steps in my way. Would not I have said if I liked? But I tell him, “I will 12
  22. 22. think upon it. This is the first room I have visited.” This seems to satisfy him. At least, he gets his sweatiness out of my way, and I am allowed to pass to the next room. This room and indeed the two after it are little better. I find one dress, a pink one, which might be acceptable for a lesser event like Friday’s picnic, some event at which I would not mind looking like the dessert, but nothing at all to wear on the Most Important Night of My Life. “Talia?” Lady Brooke says after the third room. “Perhaps if you gave more than a cursory glance—” “Perhaps if they were not all so hideous!” I am devastated and hurt, and Lady Brooke does not understand. How could she? When she was young, she could go to shops and choose her own clothing, even make it if she liked. I will never be normal, but barring that, I would like to be abnormal in a lovely green dress without too many frills. “Here is a green one,” Lady Brooke says in the next room. I glower at it. The ruffles would reach my nose. “This would suit . . . my grandmother.” “Could the ruffles be removed?” Lady Brooke asks the tailor. “Could you create a gown that is not entirely hideous?” I add. “Talia . . .” “It is naught but the truth.” “Pardonez moi,” the tailor says. “The frock, I can fix it.” 13
  23. 23. “Non, merci,” I say, and flounce from the room. In the next, I spy a lavender velvet with a heart-shaped neckline. I reach to touch the soft fabric. “Beautiful, is it not?” Lady Brooke asks. I pull my hand back. I am thoroughly sick of Lady Brooke and dresses and my life. I am certain she despises me as well and, suddenly, the company of even Malvolia herself seems preferable to that of the detestable Lady Brooke. “Do you have anything better?” “Talia, you are being terrible.” “I am being truthful, and I would thank you to remember that you are in my father’s service.” “I know it. Would that it were not the case, for I am ashamed to be in your presence when you are behaving like a horrible brat.” She says it with a smile. The tailor, too, smiles stupidly. I stare at him. “Are there any gowns which are less likely to make me want to vomit than this one?” The man continues to smile and nod. “He speaks no English,” I say. “So what care you what I say to him?” “I care because I am forced to listen to you. You have grown more and more insolent in recent weeks. I am ashamed of you.” She nods and smiles. I feel something like tears springing to my eyes. Lady Brooke hates me, even though she is required to like me. Probably everyone else hates me, too, and merely pretends 14
  24. 24. because of Father. But I hold the tears back. Princesses do not cry. “Then why not leave me alone?” I ask, smiling as I was trained. “Why does no one ever leave me be for one single, solitary instant?” “My orders—” “Were your orders to yell at me and call me a brat?” I begin to pace back and forth like a caged animal. I am a caged animal. “Tomorrow I shall be sixteen. Peasant girls my age are married with two and three babes, and yet I am not permitted to walk down a hallway within my own castle without supervision.” “The curse—” “You do not even believe in the curse! And yet it has come true, not the spindle part, but the death. . . . I am living my death, little by little, each day. And when I am sixteen and the curse ends, I shall be given over to a husband of someone else’s choosing, who will tell me what to do and say and eat and wear for the rest of my life. I can only pray that it will be short, pray for the blessed independence of the grave. I will always be under someone’s orders.” I begin to cry, anyway, to sob. What difference does it make? “Can I not simply walk down a hallway on my own?” Through it all, the tailor smiles and nods. Lady Brooke’s expression softens. “I suppose it would be all right. After all, the tailors have been thoroughly searched and the spindle regulations explained to them.” “Of course they have.” I sigh. 15
  25. 25. Lady Brooke turns to the man and speaks to him in French. “Thank you!” I sob. I point to the lavender gown and say, in French, “It is beautiful! I shall take that one, and that one as well.” I point to a charming scarlet satin with a neckline off the shoulders in the style of Queen Mary of England, a gown I had purposely ignored before, which now looks quite fetching. “Very well.” Lady Brooke hands me the map. “Just point to what you want, and they will put it aside.” I nod and take the paper from her. I am free—at least for an hour! 16
  26. 26. Chapter 3 j F ree of the encumbrance that is Lady Brooke, I fairly skip down the stone hallways. I would swing from the chandeliers, could I reach them, but I content myself with jumping up toward them. My life is no less horrible than before, but at least there is no dour Lady Brooke to remark upon its horribleness. In short time, I have chosen five dresses, none blue, but none special enough for my grand entrance at my birthday ball. Although one is green, it does not match the exact shade of my eyes. “It will look lovely on you,” says the tailor, who is from England. Of course he thinks so. I know what he is about. Having his dress worn by a princess on an occasion of such import will increase his renown. For the rest of his life, he 17
  27. 27. might call himself “Tailor to Talia, Princess of Euphrasia.” But his apprentice says, “Indeed. It may not be the same shade as your remarkable eyes, but it will bring them out.” The tailor quickly shushes him, lest the boy disgrace them both by speaking so to a princess. But I turn toward him and smile. He is my age, no more, perhaps the tailor’s son. And—I find it difficult not to notice—he is handsome. For a commoner. His eyes are the color of cornflowers. “Do you think so?” He looks down, blushing. “I meant no disrespect, Your Highness. But yes. It will look lovely on you, as any dress would.” I wonder what it would be like to be a common girl, who could flirt with such a handsome tailor’s apprentice with impunity. Or, better yet, to be the apprentice himself, to be a boy, so young, yet traveling far from home. And to learn a trade such as making a dress. In all my life, I have never created anything, never done anything at all other than silly paintings of flowers for my art master, Signor Maratti. Father hung them in his bedchamber, where they would be seen by no one. Is it enough to be a princess, when being a princess means nothing? I nod and turn reluctantly to the old tailor. “I shall wear it tonight for dinner. Many noblewomen will be in attendance, and if they compliment my gown, I will tell them your name.” I start for the door. The tailor bows, but the boy does not move. He is staring at me, entranced by my beauty. I 18
  28. 28. get the shiveriest sensation across my arms. Of course he thinks I am beautiful, but I like that he sees me. I wonder if this is what it will be like when I meet my prince. Maybe it will not be so bad. Five more rooms, then ten, and still the dress I desire has not been found. It seems a small task, certainly one the best tailors in the world should be able to accomplish. And yet they have not. I sigh. Perhaps I will wear the English tailor’s dress to the ball after all. I reach the end of the hallway. I have never been in this part of the castle before. Amazing. These rooms have barely been used, but surely a child—a normal child—would explore every room at some time. But I had not been a normal child. I spy a staircase in the shadows. This is not one of the stairways I am accustomed to using to reach the fourth floor, and when I check Lady Brooke’s map, I see that it was not included. How odd. I am seized with a sudden urge to run up its steps, even slide down the banister. But that is silly, and if I do that, I will be delayed. And then Lady Brooke will come looking for me. I turn back down the hall. Suddenly, I hear a voice. It was a lover and his lass, With a hey, and a ho, And a hey nonny no . . . 19
  29. 29. A lover. In the spring time, the only pretty ring time . . . A woman’s voice, singing. Entranced, almost, I start up the stair. When birds do sing, Hey ding a ding, ding! Sweet lovers love the spring! At the top of the stairs, there is an open door. I stop. There is no tailor. I knew there would not be. But instead, there is an old woman sitting upon a bench. I see not what she is doing, for she is surrounded by dresses, so many dresses, much more than twenty. But that is not the remarkable thing. Each and every dress is exactly the same shade of green as my eyes. “Lovely!” The cry comes from me unbidden. I run into the room. “Good afternoon, Your Highness.” The old woman attempts to rise from her chair with great effort. She begins to curtsy. “Oh, please don’t!” I say. She is, after all, very old. “Ah, but I must. You are a princess, and respect must be accorded certain positions. Those who do not take heed will pay the price.” 20
  30. 30. She is almost to the floor, and I wonder how long it will take her to right herself. Still, I say, “Very well.” I wish for a second—but only a second—that Lady Brooke were here so that she might see how I follow her directions about not arguing with my elders. I step back and study the dresses. It seems there is every style and every fabric: satins, velvets, brocades of all designs, and a lighter fabric I have never seen before, which will float behind me like a cloud of butterflies. Finally, the woman rises. “Do you like anything?” I had nearly forgotten she was there, so enchanted was I with the gowns. I sigh. “Yes, I like everything! It is all perfect.” She laughs. “I am honored that you believe so. For you see, I am from Euphrasia. I have seen you all your life, Your Highness, and have flattered myself that I knew better than any foreigner the designs that would suit my own princess.” “Indeed.” I try to recall if I have seen her before, perhaps in the crowds at a parade. But why would I have noticed an old woman who looks much like any other? Only her eyes are unusual. They are not glazed over with a film of white, like so many very old people’s are. Instead, they are lively, black and glittering like a crow’s. “Have you a special favorite?” she asks. “This one.” I start toward the lightweight dress. “I shall rival the fairies in this!” “’Tis my favorite, too. Do you mind, Your Highness, if 21
  31. 31. I sit back down? I know it is not the correct way, but I am quite old, and my knees are not what they once were when I was a young woman like yourself, dancing at festivals.” “Of course.” I am flooded with gratitude toward this stranger who knows what I want, who understands me as Mother and Father and wretched Lady Brooke do not. I approach the dress. The old woman has settled back onto her stool and has begun some sort of needlework. There is a contraption in her hand, something that looks like a top with which children play. It is nearly covered in wool that has been dyed a deep rose. “What is that?” I ask her. “Oh, ’tis my sewing. I make my own thread. Do you wish to try?” Sewing? I step closer. The contraption is a wooden spike weighted at one end with a whorl of darker wood. A hook holds the thread in place, and when the thread is finished, it winds around the stick below the whorl, to be used for sewing. There is a quantity of unfinished wool at the top. “Oh, I should not.” “Of course not. I misspoke. ’Twould be unfitting for a young lady such as yourself to make dresses. You were born merely to wear them. Humble souls like myself were meant to create.” I nod, approaching the dresses again. “Only . . .” “What is it?” I am touching the fabric, but I glance back at her. 22
  32. 32. “They say ’tis lucky. ’Twas handed down to me by my mother and her mother before her, and all who make thread with it are entitled to one wish.” “A wish?” I know what Lady Brooke would say on the subject. Her thoughts on wishes are much like her thoughts on magic. Superstition is the opposite of God. Still, I say, “Have you ever wished upon it?” “Aye.” She nods. “I have indeed, when I was young. I wished for a long life.” I stare at her. Her face is like crumpled silk, and her hair the color of paper. “How long ago was that?” “When I was your age, fifteen. So nigh upon two hundred years.” I gasp, but the old woman holds my gaze. “What would you wish for, Your Highness? I know you must have wishes, trapped as you are in this castle, longing to marry if only to get out, not daring to hope for freedom.” Her voice is very nearly hypnotic. “Be not afraid. What do you wish for?” My freedom. Or love. Or . . . travel. I wish to travel the world, to be not a princess trapped in a protected existence, but a human girl. Silly thought. I cannot do that. “I think . . .” I say, “I will try it.” She nods and moves aside to make room for me on the bench. Her movement is less labored than before. She pats the space beside her. “Sit, Princess.” She hands me the object, stick first. “This in your right hand. Then 23
  33. 33. take the thread in your left, and spin it clockwise. When the thread has begun to spin, you make your wish.” I take the stick. I am distracted, thinking of my wish, my freedom, of seeing the world. As I reach for the thread, I feel a stab of pain in my finger. The hook at the end has punctured my left ring finger. When I glance down, I see a drop of crimson upon my skirt. Blood. It is only then that I realize what the object is. A spindle. The princess shall prick her finger on a spindle. I hear the old woman’s laughter as I begin to sink down. Malvolia! My last thought as I hit the ground is, I should have listened to Lady Brooke. 24
  34. 34. G G Part II j Jack = G G
  35. 35. Chapter 1 j W hat they don’t tell you about Europe is how completely lame it is. I should have guessed, though. It was my parents’ idea. They’re not exactly renowned for their coolness. They sent me on this tour of Europe, supposedly for my education but really to get me out of their hair for a month, while simultaneously being able to brag to their friends that “Jack is on tour in Europe, getting something interesting to write about on college essays.” Painful admission here: I didn’t totally mind because my girlfriend, Amber, dumped me like last year’s cat litter when some college guy asked her out. At least being here keeps me from seeing her with the new guy, and also forces me to appear like I have some pride and not call her. And who knows? Maybe I’ll meet someone. 27
  36. 36. I was picturing clubs with Eurotrash nobility, riding on Vespas, lounging in French cafés and Greek tavernas, and, of course, the occasional topless beach (although it is a well-known fact that European women aren’t big on shaving their, um, pitular area—I planned to look elsewhere). I thought at least there’d be some cool gardens, something outdoors. I never imagined the suckitude I was about to experience—one big bus tour to every museum that offers a group rate. In Miami, where I’m from, we have maybe five museums, if you count the zoo. Here in Europe, every podunk town has ten or twenty. The bus pulls up in front of a museum and lets us out. Our tour guide, Mindy, has this little blue-and-white flag with a picture of a bird on it, which makes walking behind her the ultimate in humiliation. She walks backward to whichever great work of art the museum’s famous for. The assembled peasants gawk for a full two minutes. Then it’s off to the gift shop to spend our Euros on stuff we wouldn’t pay two cents for if it was in the Walgreens back home. It’s not doing a thing to get my mind off Amber. At least my friend Travis is here. Guess his parents wanted to get rid of him, too. I don’t even know what country we’re in now. One of those lame ones you don’t learn much about in geography, like Belgium, or maybe one of the “L” ones. I don’t pay much attention to Mindy, but yesterday I heard her say the magic word: coast. We’re near the beach. That’s when I started formulating my plan. I shake Travis awake. 28
  37. 37. “What the . . . what time is it?” “Five thirty, man.” “In the morning?” “No, at night. It’s almost time for dinner.” That gets him up. But when he sees how dark it is, he slumps back on the bed. “It’s still dark.” Can’t put anything over on Travis, at least not where food or sleep are concerned. “Okay, I lied. But I need to get out of this Tour of the Damned and have some fun. That’s not going to happen unless we can beat the seven o’clock meet-up time.” “Know what would be fun?” “What, Trav?” I’m hoping maybe he has some ideas, since I know his parents roped him into this tour, same as mine. “Sleeping.” “It’s not like they’re going to let you sleep in, anyway. Soon they’ll be banging on the door, telling us to get ready. This way, you can sleep when we hit the beach.” “Beach?” Back home in Miami, Travis is a serious sun god. Now he’s the color of marshmallows. “Sure, the beach. Think of it, Travis. Topless French chicks.” “We’re not in France.” “Okay, topless German chicks. Does it make a difference?” 29
  38. 38. “Will there be food?” “Sure. There’s a café across the street. We’ll get breakfast and some sandwiches, but first we have to get out of here.” Finally, I manage to get him out of bed. I’d actually sort of wanted to go look at this National Botanic Garden of Belgium (Belgium! That’s where we are!) we passed yesterday on the way to Museum Number Three. I could see this huge giant sequoia from the road. Of course, we didn’t have time to look at it. But I knew that Travis was way more likely to go along with me to the beach. At least it’s not another dusty art museum, and maybe we can hit the garden on the way back. I drag Travis to the concierge desk to ask for directions. “You couldn’t have done that while I was getting ready?” Travis asks. “You’d have gone back to sleep.” “You know, sometimes it’s like you work at being a slacker.” “I prefer to spend my summer not working at anything.” We have to stand there for a while, while the concierge guy makes time with the desk clerk. If he doesn’t get over here soon, Mindy might catch us. “Hey, little help here . . .” I look at his nameplate. “Jacks?” He ignores us. 30
  39. 39. “Hey! Don’t want to take time from your busy schedule.” When he finally figures out that we’re not leaving, he comes over. “Which way to the beach, Jacks?” I ask. “It is Jacques.” He gives me that special glare hotel concierges always give you when they figure out you’re American or that you don’t speak the language, like he ate a bad niçoise salad. Like I’m supposed to speak every language in Europe. I took Spanish in school. Of course, we haven’t been to Spain yet. At least, I don’t think we have. “The beach?” I repeat. “La playa?” “Le plage,” Travis tries. “Ah, oui. La plage.” We’ve pushed a magic button, and suddenly the concierge is our best friend and now speaks perfect English. “The autobus leaves at nine thirty.” “We can’t wait until nine thirty, Jacks.” Jacques shrugs. “That is when it goes.” If we have to wait until nine thirty, we’re going to get caught, and I’m going to get stuck in another museum. My girlfriend dumped me, my summer vacation is ruined, and this guy can’t even help me have one decent day? Isn’t it, like, his job to be helpful? “Is there another bus, maybe? Is this, like, the completely lamest country in Europe?” Travis nudges me. “Jack, you’re gonna get him mad.” “Who cares? He doesn’t understand me, anyway. Everyone in this country is—” “Ah, you are correct, monsieur,” Jacques interrupts, 31
  40. 40. “and I am wrong. I have just remembered there is another autobus, a different route. A different beach.” I give Trav a look like, see? “Would you write it down for us?” Travis asks. “Please?” “But of course.” The concierge hands us a bus schedule with the routes and times circled. “You want to get off here and then walk to the east.” He sketches a map. It looks pretty complicated, but at least the bus leaves in twenty minutes. “Thanks,” Travis says. “Listen, is there a place to get sandwiches?” My cell phone rings. I check the caller ID: Mindy, looking for us. I grab Travis’s arm. “We’ve got to go.” “But I’m hungry.” “Later.” I drag him away. “Thanks,” he yells to Jacques. “See you later.” Jacques waves, and he’s actually smiling. He says something that sounds like “I doubt it” but is probably just some weird French phrase. I pull Travis out the door just as I spot Mindy stepping out of the elevator. Luckily, she’s already walking backward and doesn’t see us. 32
  41. 41. Chapter 2 j G “ ood thing we got food first,” Travis says on the bus. “Yeah, you mentioned that.” Actually, Travis has mentioned that seven times, once every ten minutes that we’ve been on this bus ride. “But it is a good thing. Otherwise, we’d be starving. In fact, I’m thinking about breaking out one of the sandwiches now.” Travis brought enough sandwiches and beer (the legal drinking age here is sixteen!) for a family of four for a week. He also ate a four-egg omelet, a stack of pancakes, and ten strips of bacon (the waitress called it the “American breakfast”). Plus, since he got it to go, he actually just finished eating about twenty minutes ago. “Forget food for a minute. Doesn’t this bus ride seem a little long to you? I mean, this is a small country. I brought 33
  42. 42. my passport, but I wasn’t planning on using it.” “It’s long,” Travis agrees, eyeing the bag with the sandwiches. I pick it up and hold it shut so he has to listen to me. “And isn’t it going—I don’t know—sort of in the opposite direction of the way you’d think the beach would be?” “The guy said it was a different beach, but maybe he lied.” “I think that guy messed us up on purpose.” “You did say his country was lame.” “It is lame. So you think we’re going the wrong way, too?” “Maybe.” Trav’s looking at the bag with the sandwiches. “It’s hard to think straight when you’re hungry.” I’m about to give him a sandwich just so I can think when the bus driver announces that we’ve reached Jacques’s stop. “Finally. Time to get off.” “Does that mean I can’t have a sandwich?” “Think how good it will taste when we’re sitting on the beach.” Twenty minutes later, not only have we not found the beach, we haven’t even found the first street Jacques wrote on his map. “It says go three blocks, then turn on St. Germain,” Travis says. “But it’s been more than three blocks. It’s been, 34
  43. 43. like, six. Maybe we should turn back.” I’m about to agree when I see a street called St. Germain. “This must be it.” But the next street isn’t where it’s supposed to be, either, even when we’ve walked three times as far as the map says. “Maybe you’re right,” I say. When we turn back, nothing looks the way it did the first time. The first time, there were houses and stores and bicycles. Now there’s nothing but trees and, well . . . nature everywhere I look. “What happened?” I say. “To what?” Travis is munching on a sandwich. “To everything—the town, the people?” Travis wipes his mouth on his sleeve. “I didn’t notice.” I see a little dirt road I hadn’t seen before. I turn down it, gesturing to Travis to follow me. “Come on.” But this isn’t where we were before, either. It’s like everything just disappeared into a fog. Travis isn’t noticing, since he’s in a fog of his own, created by the sandwich. But then we run into something he can’t ignore. It’s a solid wall of brambles. “Now what?” I say. “Go back.” “Back where? We’re lost. This isn’t where we were before. Besides, look.” I gesture around me. “All this natural stuff. Back in Miami, if you had all this nature around, you’d definitely be near the beach.” In fact, the hedge looks a lot like bramble bushes in Miami. It has fuchsia flowers a little like the bougainvillea 35
  44. 44. that grows there. The weird thing is that it must be three or four stories high. “So where’s the beach?” Travis asks. I shrug. “Not back there.” “But this road’s a dead end.” “I know. But listen.” I cup my hand to my ear. “What do you hear?” “Chewing,” Travis says. “Well, stop chewing.” Travis finishes the last bite. “Okay.” “Now, what do you hear?” Travis listens real carefully. “I don’t hear anything.” “Exactly. Which means there must be nothing on the other side of that hedge—no city, no cars, just nothing. The beach.” “So you’re saying you want to go through the hedge?” “What have we got to lose?” “How about blood? Those bushes look prickly.” It’s true. But I say, “Don’t be a wuss.” “Can I have another sandwich at least?” I grab the bag from him. “After the hedge.” Fifteen minutes later, there’s nothing on any side of us except brambles. “I bet I look like the victim in a slasher movie,” Travis says. “What’s the French word for ‘chain saw’?” “It’s not that bad. The flowers sort of smell nice.” I inhale. 36
  45. 45. “Right. You stay and smell the flowers. I’m going back.” I grab his wrist. “Please, Trav. I want to go to the beach. I can’t handle another day of the tour.” He pulls away. “What’s the big deal? My parents are going to ask me what I did today.” “That’s the thing. My parents won’t. They won’t ask me what I did the past week. They don’t care what I’m doing. And I hate going to all those stupid museums. Looking at all that boring art makes my mind wander, and when my mind wanders, all I can think of is Amber kissing that frat boy.” Travis stops pulling. “Wow. That really hit you hard, huh?” “Yeah.” I thought I was just making stuff up to get Trav to do what I want, but I have this sort of sick feeling in my stomach. I’m telling the truth. My parents haven’t called in two weeks, except once to ask me if I signed up for AP Government next year for school, and this trip is doing nothing to make me forget about Amber. I see her face in every painting in every museum—especially that Degas guy, who painted girls with no faces at all. I can’t get away from her. “Yeah. I just want to go to the beach for one day. I need to be outside.” “Okay, buddy. Only you go in front.” So I go up front, taking the full scratchy brunt of the brambles for another twenty minutes—twenty minutes during which I don’t think about my parents or Amber but 37
  46. 46. only about the fact that if I lose too much blood, there’ll be no one here to help. When we finally reach the other side, I stop. “Wow,” I say. “What is it?” Travis is still behind me. “Definitely not the beach.” 38
  47. 47. Chapter 3 j W hen I was a kid, back when my family was still pretending to like one another, we took a trip to Colonial Williamsburg. It’s this place where everything’s like Colonial times—horses and buggies on unpaved streets. There’s stuff like blacksmith shops, too. My sister, Meryl, and I had fun with the employees because if you ask them stuff like which way to Starbucks, they act like they don’t know what you’re talking about. But it got weird after a while. You wondered if they seriously didn’t know it was the twentyfirst century. I was ready to go home at the end of the day. The place on the other side of the hedge is sort of like that. I mean, not just old. Pretty much everything in Europe is old and falling apart and important, but this place takes historic preservation to a whole new level. “Do you think it’s, like, a theme park?” I say to Travis. 39
  48. 48. “No one here.” “Maybe it’s just not open yet. Or closed. Is today Sunday?” The streets are unpaved, and even if they were, they’re barely wide enough to get one of those little European cars down. But the transportation here is horses, judging from how many are tied to hitching posts, sleeping. There’s not a McDonald’s or a Gap anywhere, only one building with ALEHOUSE painted on it in peeling, oldfashioned lettering. And the plants look bad. Some are overgrown, but a lot of stuff is bare, like the grass died years ago. “Definitely not the beach.” Travis starts pushing through the brambles. The brambles have settled into the same shape they were before we went through them. I do not want to go through those bushes again. Travis must think the same thing because he steps back. “Maybe we should eat lunch first.” Something about this place is really weirding me out. “Let’s wait for a while. Who knows how long it will take to get back to civilization . . . and sandwiches.” Travis thinks about it and gets this worried look on his face. “Okay. Then we should get out of here.” He starts pushing through the brambles again. “Wait! Maybe we should start looking for a different way out or at least see if anyone around here has a chain saw.” 40
  49. 49. “You see any people here?” “There’s horses. And they’re tied up. That means there are people somewhere.” The weird thing is, I sort of want to look around a little bit. This place is cooler than anything else we’ve seen on this trip. At least it’s outside, and Mindy’s not here telling us what to think. “We should look for them.” Travis glances around. “If there’s people here, they’re really not into mowing and weeding. But if you say so. . . .” “I do.” He shrugs but follows me. We walk down the street, which is really more of a pathway with weeds and stuff growing on both sides. I point to the alehouse. “Let’s try in there.” He nods. “It doesn’t look like the type of place where they’d card.” The alehouse has steps in front of it. When I put my foot on one, it squeaks and moves under me. I step on a better, less rotted part, but even so, it quivers and shakes. “This is really weird, Jack. You think maybe the whole town died or something, and there’s nothing but a bunch of dead bodies?” I remember when we went to Colonial Williamsburg, they told us about all the diseases people got in those days, like yellow fever, black plague, and scarlet fever. Meryl and I joked that all the diseases back then sounded really colorful. But now it’s kind of freaky thinking about some sickness taking out the whole town. Maybe Travis is right, 41
  50. 50. not necessarily that everyone died, but maybe a lot did and the rest decided to get out of Dodge. But I say, “That’s stupid. There’s no abandoned town in Europe. If there were, someone would turn it into a museum. They’d widen the streets and bring people here by the busload and torture kids on tours.” “I guess you’re right.” “Of course I am.” And to prove how right I am, I walk to the door. But I still can’t bring myself to go in, so I look through the window. It’s easy because there’s no glass in it, and I remember that a lot of places didn’t have glass windows in the old days, only shutters to pull down at night or if it got cold. I can’t see much. There’s no light inside and nothing moving. We stand there so long that I’m almost expecting someone—possibly a ghost—to come up behind us and ask what we’re doing here. So when Travis says, “Come on!” I jump about three feet. He laughs. “Not afraid of dead bodies, huh?” “Nope.” I push open the door. The room is dark. There are lanterns, but none are lit. It takes my eyes a minute to get used to it. Even so, I see there are people there, sitting on barstools, but they’re really quiet. No music, no laughter, no talking, and when my pupils finally dilate, I realize the people aren’t moving at all, like they’re dead. But they can’t be dead. If they died long ago in some plague or massacre, their horses wouldn’t still be tied 42
  51. 51. outside, and they’d be reduced to skeletons. Unless they got mummified. I saw this movie once where this guy killed someone. He mummified her body and sat her in an upstairs window. You couldn’t tell the difference unless you saw her face. I take a deep breath and let it out real slow, prepping myself to walk around and look at their faces. That’s when it happens. One of them snores. “What was that?” Travis says. He’s hugging the door. “It sounded like a snore.” “A snore? Like they’re sleeping? All of them?” “I think so.” I walk over to the side of one guy. He snores, and I see his stomach moving in and out. He’s alive. He’s definitely alive. I’m saved! I don’t have to touch a mummified corpse! I tap his shoulder. “Hey, bud.” He doesn’t answer. I shake him harder and yell louder. “Hey! Dude! Hey, you!” Now that it’s that obvious they’re not zombies or anything, Travis steps forward and starts shaking a different guy. “We’re sorry to bother you, but we’re looking for directions.” Nothing. There are five guys on stools and the bartender asleep on the floor. Trav and I spend five minutes shaking, yelling, pulling, and practically dancing with them. They’re definitely alive, but they’re totally asleep. 43
  52. 52. “I think we need to try another place,” I tell Trav. There’s only one person at the next shop, an old lady asleep with a bunch of falling-apart hats on stands. We shake her, but she doesn’t wake. We try three more places, and they’re all the same. “Freaky,” Travis says when we step out of the greengrocer’s. There was nothing in the bins, not a single grape or carrot. The grocer was napping on the floor. “Can we leave now? A grocer without groceries is just . . . wrong.” I sigh. “I guess so.” But when I turn the corner, I stop. “Whoa!” 44
  53. 53. Chapter 4 j I t’s a castle. Not a modern-looking one like Buckingham Palace, with electricity and toilets (when we visited it, the plumber was there—his truck said THE DIPLOMAT OF DRAIN AND SEWER CLEANING—and Trav and I had fun joking about what the queen had done to stop up the drains), but a real castle, the kind that comes in a set with a bunch of plastic knights and horses. It could even have a dungeon. “Check it out.” I start toward it. “Hey, wrong way. I want to go back.” “Suit yourself.” I walk faster. “But I have the sandwiches.” “Hey!” Travis starts running after me, but he’s got on flip-flops. I have sneakers, and I was on the track team at school, so I can outrun him. The castle is farther than I thought because it’s bigger 45
  54. 54. than I thought. It’s big enough to put a whole city in. I finally reach it about ten minutes later. There’s a moat around it full of brown, sludgy water. “Oops. Can’t go in,” Trav yells from way back. I walk around the perimeter until I see where the drawbridge is. It’s open, and there’s a castle door at the end of it. I start across. “Are you sure you should do that? Someone might behead you.” “Come on, Travis. What are we going to do, go crawling back to Mindy? This is the first interesting thing we’ve seen in the past three weeks. I just want to look around.” At the door, I see two guards. Surprise—they’re sleeping. I grasp the handle and pull on it. It opens with a loud squeal. I step inside. We’re in this huge room with three-story ceilings. “Wow, it’s like the ballroom in Shrek 2,” Travis says. I nod and hand him a sandwich. It lightens the load, and we’ve still got six or seven more. To be safe, I hold on to the beer. “Hey, look.” I point at a suit of armor standing in a corner. “Let’s try it on.” “There could be someone in it.” I jump back. I hadn’t thought about that. I don’t think the sleeping people around here look like they date back to medieval times, but better safe than sorry. I slowly, gingerly lift the bill of the knight’s face mask. It’s empty. 46
  55. 55. I breathe out. “Maybe this place won’t be as freaky as the rest.” This is so cool. All the castles and towers we’ve been to, you’re either not allowed to look around inside at all, or if you are, you just get to stand behind velvet ropes and see stuff in climate-controlled boxes. This place is real, even if it is a little dusty. I start down a hallway that goes out to the side. I look in the first room. “Hey.” “What is it? The kitchen?” “Better.” It’s an actual throne room like in the movies, and there are people in it, peasants maybe, waiting to see the king or something. The king isn’t there, though. “They’re asleep like everyone else in this town,” Travis says. “But look.” Two guards sleep off to one side. Each has a pillow in his lap. On each pillow is a crown encrusted with diamonds, emeralds, and rubies. It’s just like the stuff we saw in the Tower of London, only it’s out where we can touch it. “I’m trying one on,” I say. “Are you sure you should? What if they wake up?” “We’ve practically stomped on these people, and they haven’t woken up.” Still, when I take the crown off its velvet pillow, I almost expect an alarm to go off or something. None does, and I place the crown on my head. “How do I look?” Travis laughs. “Kind of stupid.” 47
  56. 56. “You’re just jealous. Try the other.” “It’s a girl’s crown.” Still, he puts it on. We fool around, sitting on the thrones and patting the peasants on the heads. After a while, Travis says, “We should take them.” I shake my head. I don’t like the idea of stealing anything. “Let’s look around first and see what else there is.” We put the crowns back and go into more rooms. On the third floor, there’s a bunch of rooms with nothing in them but dresses. “Wouldn’t you think this stuff would get eaten by rats and bugs?” Travis says. “You see any rats and bugs? Maybe they’re sleeping, too.” When we reach maybe the tenth room of dresses, Travis says, “This is boring. Let’s try on the armor.” I’m about to say okay when I notice this weird little staircase going off to the side. I saw a turret when we were outside. I wonder if this goes up to it. “Let’s go there first,” I say. Before Travis can protest, I start upstairs. I didn’t think the staircase was very tall, but it curves around and goes higher. Then it curves again and again. When we finally reach the top, the door is closed. I open it and find a room with nothing but a girl, sleeping on the floor. She’s the most beautiful girl I’ve ever seen. 48
  57. 57. Chapter 5 j I stare at her. I’ve never seen a human being who looks like her, and I’m from Miami, where good-looking people go to spawn. But this girl isn’t just beautiful. She’s perfect in a way that’s unreal, like one of Meryl’s Barbie dolls. What I’m saying is, this girl is . . . “Wow, she’s hot,” Travis says when he finally reaches the door. Yeah. That. She’s lying on the floor with these golden curls all around her, like someone arranged them that way. Her body, I can tell even in her long dress, is totally perfect. She’s taller than almost everyone else here, and thin in all the right places with these great . . . “Would you look at her?” Travis interrupts my thoughts again. 49
  58. 58. I am. I stare at the top of her dress, which she’s really filling out, let me tell you. I feel this incredible urge to touch her, but I know it’s wrong because she’s asleep. But the weird thing is, it’s not her body I notice the most. It’s her face. Her skin is the color of milk with just the tiniest bit of strawberry Nesquik mixed in. Her eyes are closed, but I can tell they’re huge, with long eyelashes that curve upward. And her mouth. It’s full and red, and her lips definitely don’t look like lips that haven’t been moistened in hundreds of years. For some reason, looking at her makes me think of Amber. Not that she looks like Amber, because she doesn’t. Amber’s beautiful in a normal, human way. But, compared to this girl, Amber’s total chopped liver. And somehow, just looking at her, I know she isn’t like Amber. She wouldn’t dump someone for a guy with a cooler car. “What are you, in love with her?” Travis says. “You’re staring like an idiot.” The weird thing is, I think I am. Stupid. “She’s asleep. You could . . .” Travis looks at the door. “. . . do anything.” “That’s sick.” “You know you were thinking about it.” “No, I wasn’t. That would be wrong.” “Right and wrong’s getting kind of fuzzy for me. Was it 50
  59. 59. wrong to ditch the tour? Was it wrong to lie to Mindy? Was it wrong to sneak in here?” “I guess.” I keep looking at the girl. I can’t stop looking at her. “Come on. I dare you to touch her.” “Okay.” I want to anyway. I lean toward her, wishing she’d wake up. I reach down and touch one of her curls. Soft. So soft. I comb my fingers through it to make it last. She stirs in her sleep, and I imagine she’s enjoying my touch, but of course, that’s impossible. “Not her hair, dorko. She can’t even feel her hair.” “She can’t feel anything. She’s asleep like the rest of them.” “So why not touch an important part?” It’s not because Travis says to. It’s because I want to. I move my hand back up the length of her hair to her face. It feels like—God, this is hokey—flower petals. Roses, maybe. I move my finger across her cheek, to her mouth, her lips. They’re parted slightly, and suddenly, I can’t keep from admitting it: I want to kiss her. Crazy, because ten minutes ago I was still completely thinking about Amber, but I really want to kiss this comatose chick. I lean closer. “Not her cheek, idiot!” Travis leans down. “God, get out of the way.” “No!” I block him. It’s impossible to say that I totally, like, respect this girl even though I don’t know her. I can just tell she’s someone special. 51
  60. 60. God, I wonder if she’s a princess! I stand. “Look, I want to kiss her, but not in front of you. Why don’t you go downstairs and steal those crowns? The princess and I need some time alone.” “For real?” “Sure.” I can get him to put them back later. “But give me ten minutes.” “Okay, but I’ll be back soon.” He starts toward the door and then turns back. “Hey, you don’t think it’s really stealing when they’re, like, never going to wake up?” I sort of do, but I’m not the one doing the stealing, and I want Travis gone. “Of course not.” “Okay. See ya.” And he’s gone. I’m alone in the room except for the girl. I touch her hair again, and her cheek, now that I can do it without Travis ragging on me. She sighs softly in her sleep. She’s so beautiful, I wish she’d wake up so I could talk to her. But it’s probably better this way. If she were awake, she wouldn’t be into me. That’s when I think of Snow White. Snow White was Meryl’s favorite fairy tale. Of course, being a boy, I thought it was lame. Still, she watched the DVD maybe a thousand times, so I couldn’t help but know the story, which is about a princess who eats a poisoned apple. Everyone thinks she’s dead. But then the prince kisses her. She wakes up, and she and the prince live happily ever after. 52
  61. 61. Maybe I could wake her up. Except, of course, I’m no prince. And there’s all those other sleeping people. That didn’t happen in Snow White. Still, it wouldn’t hurt to kiss her. I’d feel less like a sicko if I think I’m trying to wake her. I raise her up toward me. Her body is warm, and it’s like nothing to lift her. Her dress is made of this soft velvet, and when I pull her close, I can feel her heartbeat. I wish I could see her eyes, but her face . . . her lips . . . It’s kind of weird to kiss a girl if you don’t know her name. But maybe I can make one up. Talia. The name just comes to me. I don’t know where I got it from. I’ve never known a Talia. Still, I’m sure it’s the perfect name. “Talia,” I whisper. She sighs in her sleep. “Oh, Talia.” I pull her toward me, one hand in her hair, supporting her head. I bring my face close to hers, and it’s like I can see her whole life, being in this castle, isolated, wishing for something more. I don’t know how I know it, maybe the same way I know her name. Talia. My lips are on hers. It’s a long kiss. I hold her closer, feeling her hair, her body, her mouth, and then her hands in my hair. What the—? I don’t want to stop kissing her, especially since she’s 53
  62. 62. kissing me back, even if it’s in her sleep. Still, finally, I have to pull away from her to breathe. So I do. “You’re so beautiful, Talia.” I look straight into her grass green eyes. I’ve never seen eyes that color before. “Thank you, my prince,” she sighs. Then the green eyes widen. “Who are you?” And that’s when she screams. 54
  63. 63. Chapter 6 j S he’s awake! It really is like Snow White! Holy crap! But I’m no prince. I’m just this regular guy from America— a totally prince-free country—and she’s still awake. She opens her mouth to scream again. “Don’t scream.” I put my fingers over her lips, not like a kidnapper or anything. “I’m not going to hurt you. Please don’t scream.” Not that it would matter if she did. I mean, there’s no one awake to hear her. She pushes my hand away. “Explain yourself! Who are you? Why were you . . . kissing me?” “I’m Jack. I wasn’t kissing you, exactly. You were passed out. I was giving you mouth-to-mouth resuscitation.” I lie because I don’t want her to think I was attacking her or something. 55
  64. 64. “Mouth to . . . what? What are you saying? What is that?” Geez, she’s stupid. Beautiful, but dumb. Isn’t that always the way? Unless they don’t have mouth-to-mouth where—or when—she’s from. “Jack? Are you one of the dressmakers? What is that you are wearing?” I look down. I have on kind of junky clothes, an Old Navy Fourth of July flag T-shirt from last summer, and jeans. The shirt’s all torn up from going through the bushes. At least I pulled the jeans on over my swim trunks at the last minute. “It’s a flag T-shirt.” She looks confused at the word T-shirt and squints at it. “Flag? From what country?” “The United States. America. Yo soy Americano.” “Where is that?” “Other side of the ocean? Head west?” Maybe she hit her head. Her eyes light up with recognition. “Oh! You mean Virginia?” Which is weird. Colonial Williamsburg is in Virginia. Maybe all these people who pretend they’re historical figures know each other, like some sort of club. “Yeah, sort of. Not Virginia, exactly. Florida. But they’re both in America.” “And this is your flag? It is a custom, then, to wear it on your chest?” 56
  65. 65. It seems kind of weird when you put it that way. “Not always.” “I see. So you have come from . . . ?” “Florida.” “Then you must be here to show me dresses, for you are certainly not visiting royalty.” I’m not sure I like the way she says “certainly,” but I let it go. The girl has definitely had a bad day. “What dresses?” She gets a sort of faraway look on her face, then stands. “Now I remember. Before I . . . fainted, I suppose, I was looking at dresses, such beautiful dresses, each the exact shade of my eyes.” She looks at me, and I notice again what gorgeous eyes she has. I imagine what it would be like to have those eyes focused on me. “They are gone,” she says. “I didn’t see any dresses. I swear.” “But you were not here, either. It was just me and one other person. A boy.” She smiles. “No. That was earlier. But then there was a lady, an old woman. It was she who brought the green dresses. She was spinning thread. She told me I could make a wish.” She stops speaking and turns away from me, toward the window. “But why can I not remember? It just happened.” “Maybe I can help you,” I say, kneeling beside her. “Close your eyes.” 57
  66. 66. She gives me a look, like maybe I’m trying to trick her, but she closes them. With her eyes closed, it’s like the lights have gone out, and now it’s nighttime. “Okay,” I say. “Now, try to picture it. You’re looking at the pretty dresses, and there’s an old woman there. What does she look like?” “I could tell she was once beautiful. She had black eyes that glittered like onyx.” “She said you could have a wish, and then what?” She places her hand over her eyes. “Oh, I have a headache.” “What’s the next thing you remember?” She breathes in deeply, then sighs. Finally, she says, “A dream. It must be, for I was kissing a prince, my prince. He was telling me how beautiful I was.” “Your boyfriend?” “No! I have no friends, certainly none who are boys. I have been nowhere, met no one.” She shakes her head. “It was but a dream. Then I opened my eyes, and you were kissing me.” She looks down a moment, examining something on her skirt. It looks like a spot of blood. And suddenly, her eyes open fully, wider and greener than before. “Oh, my!” “What?” I back away. “What is it?” “A kiss! You say I was sleeping, and you happened upon me?” “Yeah.” 58
  67. 67. “Yes. And did you think I was quite beautiful?” I grimace, and she says, “Oh, never mind. Of course you did. Everyone agrees that I am utterly stunning.” “Modest, too.” She ignores me. “So you saw me, and I was so beautiful that you immediately fell in love with me.” This girl’s pretty full of herself, but it’s not far from the truth. “Well, not—” “You fell in love with me, and you leaned over and kissed me. Love’s first kiss. And when you kissed me, I woke immediately. Is that true?” “Yeah.” And suddenly, she begins to cry. “Oh, no. Oh, no. I am a fool. Old pudding-faced Lady Brooke was right. I am a stupid girl and ought never have been trusted for even a minute on my own.” “What are you talking about?” I want to put my arm around her or something, but I get the feeling that wouldn’t be a good idea. “The curse, stupid!” “Now I’m stupid? What happened to you being stupid, and what curse?” “The curse. The curse. Everyone knows about Malvolia’s curse. Oh, my father will kill me. They will probably lock me up in a convent!” She begins to sob again, and then seeing that I am still not with the program, she says, “Before her sixteenth birthday, the princess shall prick her finger on a spindle and die.” 59
  68. 68. “But you’re not dead.” “No. The fairy Flavia changed it so I would merely sleep. The whole kingdom would sleep, to wake only when I was wakened by true love’s first kiss.” “Uh-huh.” She’s nuts. “The old lady was Malvolia, do you not see? She came with the dresses, gained my trust. She had probably been watching me all my life. She brought with her a spindle. She knew I would make a wish, and when I did . . .” “You’re saying she stabbed you with that spindle thing?” “Exactly. It is the curse. I have made the curse come true.” And she starts blubbering harder. “Hey, calm down,” I say. “It’s going to be okay.” Now she stands and begins pacing. “They warned me so many times. It is practically the only subject upon which I conversed with my parents. It was their worst fear, and it has come true.” I try to think of what my parents’ worst fear is—me not getting into college, maybe. Or having to go to one of those community colleges that’s near a good school, so they could just tell everyone “Jack went to Boston” or whatever. They’d die. But I say, “Exactly. It’s over. You went to sleep, and you’re awake now because of me and my magical kiss. Your parents will probably be so happy you’re okay that they won’t even be mad.” 60
  69. 69. “Do you really think that?” “Sure. It’s like this one time I totaled my car. My mom was driving by, and she saw the wreck. She was so happy I wasn’t dead that she didn’t even . . .” I stop. The princess is staring at me like I’m speaking in tongues. “Anyway, I’m sure they’ll just be okay with it. You’re their little princess, right?” She’s stopped crying, and now she nods. “Perhaps you are right.” “I know I am.” “What is the date? I need to know how long I have slept.” I check my watch’s date feature. “It’s June twenty-third.” “Oh, that is not so bad then. A month. I missed my birthday party, which is a shame, and they will need to explain to the guests, but still . . .” Her eyes fall on my watch. “What is that?” “A watch.” She picks up my wrist, examines it, then holds it to her ear. “A clock? On your wrist? How strange.” She pulls back from me and examines my clothes, the flag T-shirt. “What is that?” She points to the numbers on the shirt. “The year. Old Navy puts the year on all their flag T-shirts. It’s sort of a racket, I guess—you have to buy a new one every year.” “That . . . is . . . the . . . year?” She looks sort of sick. Her face is suddenly almost the same color green as her eyes. “Well, I got it last year. We always get them for when we 61
  70. 70. go watch fireworks. But I probably won’t get one this year, come to think of it, because—” “That is the year? The year!” “Well, last year.” She begins to shake. “Oh, my . . . oh, no.” She crumples back onto the floor, as she was when I first saw her. “It cannot be true. It cannot.” I kneel beside her. “What’s the matter now? I thought you were fine.” She looks at me, then starts screaming. “Fine? Fine? I have been asleep nearly three hundred years!” Outside on the stairs, I hear a commotion, people running, then yelling. “Stop! Thief!” Travis appears at the door. “Jack, we gotta go. They’re all awake, and they’re after me for stealing the crown!” 62
  71. 71. Chapter 7 j T hings get a little crazy then. There’s Travis at the door and then two guards with actual swords. When they come in, Travis starts yelling, “I don’t have them! Search me if you don’t believe me—just don’t behead me!” One of the swords swings around, and he jumps. “Get those things away from me!” Then a bunch more people show up. Most of them are holding fancy old dresses. Next is a woman, who I’m guessing is the one the princess called “pudding-faced Lady Brooke,” because her face does look as beige and bland as vanilla pudding. Talia runs to her, screaming with anguish. “Lady Brooke! I have done it! I have done it!” “Done what, dear?” Lady Brooke says. “Ruined everything. I am so sorry.” 63
  72. 72. Travis has managed to edge away from the guards in the confusion when the dressmakers showed up. Now, he tugs my arm. “Come on, man.” I start to go, glancing back at the princess, who’s still wailing away. “Wait!” the princess screams, loud enough to make everyone in the room stop what they’re doing and look at her. Everything is silent, and I realize that no one but Talia and I know that they’ve been asleep for hundreds of years. Finally, pudding-faced Lady Brooke says, “What now, dear?” The princess points at me. “He cannot leave.” “Why not?” “Because he has kissed me!” Every eye in the room turns on me. The guards notice Travis again, but this time they grab both of us. “Have you defiled the princess?” one guard demands, getting close with the sword. “No . . . I mean, I don’t think so.” “No!” Talia says. “I am not defiled in the least. But he must stay.” “Who are you?” Lady Brooke asks. “I’m Jack O’Neill . . . from Florida . . . I guess I broke some spell. No need to thank me. If you’ll just call off your guard before he removes something, I’ll get going.” The princess lunges toward me. “You cannot go. You have broken the spell. Do you know what that means?” When I don’t answer, she says, “It means you are my true love.” 64
  73. 73. “Cuckoo! Cuckoo!” Travis whispers. I ignore him. “True love? But I don’t even know your name.” “My name?” She looks surprised. “Oh, well, that is easy enough. Everyone knows that.” “Except me.” Once you tell me, can I leave? “Very well. It is probably best to have a proper introduction.” She looks at Pudding Face and says, “Lady Brooke.” Lady Brooke nods, although she doesn’t look happy about it, and gestures toward me. “Jack O’Neill, of Florida, you are presented to Her Royal Highness, Princess Talia.” Talia. “It is customary to bow at this time,” Talia says. “Your name is Talia? I didn’t know . . .” “And yet, that is what you called me when you . . .” “I know.” I shake my head. “I mean, I didn’t know your name, but somehow I guessed or something. It was weird, like someone told it to me.” She nods. “True love. It was meant to be.” “Look,” I say, “I might want to go out sometime, but as far as true love—” “But you woke me! And I can only be awakened by true love’s kiss. And besides, I am a beautiful princess. How could you not love me?” Easy. Travis looks at Talia, then at the hands of the guards who are holding him, and then back at Talia. “So, um, Your Royalness, do you think you could maybe let us go?” 65
  74. 74. “Yeah, it’s—ah—getting late.” It’s actually only twelve thirty, but who knows if these people can even tell time. “Our tour group’s waiting for us.” “Highness, this one is a thief !” the guard behind Travis says. “And if this person was with him, he must be an accomplice.” “I’m no thief,” I say, “and neither is Travis.” “The crown was in his hands!” says the guard. “He didn’t take anything, and I’m the one who broke the curse and saved you all. Doesn’t that count for anything?” “What curse?” Lady Brooke says. “What is he talking about?” Talia ignores her. “Yes. Guards, you must unhand this gentleman at once. He is an honored guest and a friend of my future husband. You must both stay for supper.” Future husband? Does she mean me? “Excuse me, but I’m not—” “Talia . . .” Lady Brooke says. “You cannot mean to invite this . . . this . . . commoner to supper. It is the eve of your birthday ball.” Talia starts to cry again. “No, Lady Brooke. Do you not understand? I have touched a spindle! A spindle! We have all been asleep for a great while, and this . . .” She gestures toward me. “This commoner has awakened me.” “You have touched a spindle, you say?” Lady Brooke’s puddingy jaw is hanging. Talia nods. “A spindle, you say?” 66
  75. 75. “Yes!” Lady Brooke cradles her forehead in her hands. “I have left you alone for ten minutes, and you touched a spindle and slept for . . . for . . .” “Three hundred years.” “Ah!” Lady Brooke looks like she’s been stabbed. “Oh, not again, not again . . .” She recovers. “And you have been awakened by a . . . a . . .” “Really great guy?” I volunteer. Talia nods. “He will stay for supper.” She looks at me. “You will stay for supper?” I nod. I can handle it if that’s what it takes for them to let me go—even though they’ll probably serve squirrel or something. “That’s fine. Just let me call the hotel and tell them where we are.” I take out my cell phone. “What is that?” Princess Talia says. “A phone.” She keeps staring at it. In fact, everyone stops what they’re doing, gathers around, and stares. “You can, um, talk to people on it.” Except I can’t get a signal. Duh. There’s no tower here. Suddenly, it dawns on me what Talia said: I have been asleep nearly three hundred years! If that’s true, this place is like a time warp. Princess Talia really did screw things up. And all I’m thinking is, How did they go so long without eating or peeing? Everyone’s still staring at the phone, which lights up and makes beeping noises. Think how jacked they’d get if it actually worked. 67
  76. 76. “We have to go there,” I say. “They’ll be waiting for us.” “But surely your friends must have known of your journey,” Talia says. “We sort of sneaked off.” “Then we must send a messenger,” Talia says. “Simply tell me the name of the inn in which you are staying, and it shall be done.” Problem one: I have no idea where the hotel is. Problem two: There’s a huge hedge around the whole country. Problem three: I am not—and I mean not—marrying this princess. “Does this help?” Travis pulls a postcard out of his pocket. It has a photo of our hotel on the front. This causes another spasm of activity as everyone has to gather around to look at the photo. Finally, Travis says, “The address is on the back, I think.” Talia hands it to Pudding Face, who looks dangerously close to fainting. She examines it a moment, then says, “That is two days’ journey.” It seemed pretty far but not two days. “Nah,” Travis says. “It was about two hours on the bus.” Pudding Face looks puzzled. “Bus?” “Yah. It’s sort of like a car only . . . you got the wheel here? Has that been invented yet?” Talia straightens her shoulders, and even Lady Brooke seems to have recovered enough to glare at Travis. “I guess it has,” Travis says. “Well, a bus is sort of a wheel 68
  77. 77. thing with a motor, and fast.” He looks at them. “Okay, I can see you don’t get the bus thing. Maybe I could, like, take your guards out and show it to them if, um, they’d let go of me and get their swords out of my butt.” Talia nods. “Do as he says.” The guards look disappointed, but they let go of Travis, and he gestures to them to follow him. “Hey, do you guys have a chain saw?” Travis is saying as they leave. When he is gone, Talia turns to me. “Well, then, we must find you some proper clothing. If we are to marry, you must meet my father.” Then, in case I don’t get it, she adds, “The king. So we can arrange the wedding.” Lady Brooke finally topples to the ground. I’m pretty close to joining her. I should have stayed with the tour! 69
  78. 78. G G Part III j Jack and Talia G = G
  79. 79. Chapter 1: j Talia M y life is ruined. I dispatch Lady Brooke to find Jack a room and some clothing. Then I go back to the task I began, I thought, this morning, but apparently almost three hundred years ago—choosing dresses for the ball. There is no reason not to have a ball. Yes, I am three hundred sixteen years old (give or take a year) rather than sixteen years old, but since I have neither starved to death, nor died of thirst while asleep, it seems as though my body has been somehow suspended in time all these years. Besides, Jack would not have kissed me had I been a crone. Therefore, tomorrow will still be my sixteenth birthday, and I am still entitled to my party, so I still need dresses. The bad news is that the most beautiful dresses were 73
  80. 80. supplied by someone whom I now know was an evil witch bent upon destroying me because she was annoyed at not being invited to a previous party (I will say, Father and Mother were rather shortsighted in not simply inviting her—what would it have cost, an extra pheasant and perhaps some turnips?), so I will need to continue my search. I venture into the first, then the second room. I know I should go looking for Mother and Father, but I simply cannot face them yet. I do not want to tell them what I have done. They will never forgive me. It is in the third room that I see Father. He looks distraught. “Talia, I am so glad to have found you.” Although, truthfully, he does not look glad in the least. “I have terrible news,” he continues. “The ball must be canceled.” “But why?” Although I have some idea why. He has discovered my folly with the spindle, and he means to punish me. I prepare to bawl, possibly to wail. I am an excellent wailer. But Father says something even more surprising. “I do not know, my pet. It seems there are no guests.” “No guests? Whatever do you mean?” “It is the queerest thing. The lookouts saw the first ships off in the distance at nine o’clock. By ten thirty, some were on the verge of entering the harbor. But then they simply disappeared.” 74
  81. 81. “Disappeared?” I repeat what he has said to give me time to think. Father nods. “I fear, daughter, that there is something afoot here, that we might be on the verge of war, or worse, that I may have been victimized by black magic, the dark art of the witch Malvolia.” Malvolia. Oh, no. In an instant, I understand what happened to the ships. They did not turn around, nor were they bewitched, not really. They may have tried to enter our harbor. But when they did, it was not there. The kingdom was obscured from sight by a giant wood, as Flavia said in her idiotic spell. They thought they had gone to the wrong place. The guests, the visiting royalty, even the special prince who might have been my husband, they have been dust for centuries, and I am merely a three-hundredsixteen-or-so-year-old princess with absolutely no prospects whatsoever. It will take a great deal of tact to explain this to Father. “I am sorry, my dear daughter.” He is sorry. Would it be possible simply to feign ignorance of the whole situation? Pretend I have no idea what happened to the ships, no comprehension of what caused—I am certain—numerous additional changes to the kingdom? But I remember Jack’s clothing and the strange flashing object he carried with him, Travis’s talk of buses. Certainly the world changed during our three-hundred-year hibernation, as surely as it changed during the three hundred years 75
  82. 82. before that, and as soon as Father remarks the changes, he will understand their cause. If he does not, Lady Brooke will be certain to tell him. “Father?” I touch his shoulder. “Yes, my princess?” “I believe . . .” I take his arm, sweet as I can, and guide him toward a chair. “I believe you should sit down.” He does, and when he does, I begin to tell my story. “I touched the spindle, and then at the next moment, a commoner named Jack was waking me up,” I conclude. Father is silent. “Father? Are you . . . is everything quite all right?” “You say you touched a spindle, Talia? A spindle?” “It was no fault of mine.” “No fault of yours? It was every fault of yours.” He looks, suddenly, like God’s revenge against murder. “Have we taught you nothing? How many times have we told you—cautioned you—about spindles? It was the first word you learned, the last thing you heard before bed at night, the one lesson of any import: Do not touch spindles. And you forgot it—ignored it?” “I said I was sorry.” “Sorry? Do you not understand that we are ruined?” “Ruined?” Father is making quite a fuss. “Certainly it is inconvenient, but—” “Inconvenient! Talia, do you not understand? Could you be so stupid?” 76
  83. 83. I feel tears springing to my eyes yet again. He has never spoken to me in this manner. “Father, your voice. Everyone will hear you.” “What does it matter? If, as you say, we have all slept these three hundred years, we are ruined, destroyed—you, I, the entire kingdom. We have no kingdom. We have no trade. We have no allies to defend us. Mark my words, it will not be long before everyone realizes that my daughter is the stupidest girl on earth.” “But . . . but . . .” I can hold back my tears no longer, and when I look at my father, I see something horrible. He is struggling to hold back his own. My father, the king, the most powerful man in all Euphrasia, is weeping, and it is my fault, all my fault. “It was a mistake!” “You cared for no one but yourself, Talia, and we are paying the price. It would have been better had you engaged in any other youthful indiscretion—running away, even eloping—rather than this one. This has affected everyone, and it is unforgivable.” My father’s words strike like daggers. He would rather see me gone than have me do what I did. He hates me. “I am sorry, Father.” He looks at the floor. “Perhaps, Talia, you ought to go to your room.” Yes. Perhaps I should go and never come out—which is probably what is planned for me, anyway. I nod and start for the door. Then I remember something I must tell him, 77
  84. 84. although at this point, I would much rather not. Still, if Father despises me, I have nothing to lose. I have already ruined everything. “Father?” “What is it now, Talia?” “The boy, the one who woke me from my sleep . . . I have invited him to stay at the castle and to have supper with us.” Father stares at me. “Supper?” “Yes. It seemed the proper thing to do.” He makes an attempt to straighten his shoulders but fails. “Yes.” The word comes out as a sigh. “Yes, I suppose it is.” And then, before I can say anything else, Father turns on his heel and leaves. I wait a minute to make sure he is gone before leaving the room myself. I am passing through the guest chambers on the way to my own room when I hear a voice. “Excuse me? Talia? Um, Your Highness.” I stop. Jack! They must have placed him in this room. I approach the door. “Yes?” Indeed, it is him. This commoner, this boy I am supposed to marry, this nobody who has ruined everything. And yet . . . he is wearing more appropriate clothing, in which he looks handsome, yet quite uncomfortable at the same time, as befits a member of the nobility. “Um, sorry to bother you, Princess.” 78
  85. 85. “No bother.” Although, in truth, I would much rather be alone with my grief. My face burns. Soon, everyone will know of my stupidity and humiliation, that I have ruined the kingdom, and soon I will be the most ruined of all. “Your dad seemed upset.” I nod, unable to speak. So he had heard. “But what he said,” Mr. Jack O’Neill continues, “about the hundred years’ sleep?” “Three hundred.” “Right. Sorry.” “Three hundred! We have slept three hundred years, and we are ruined, and it is all my fault.” I try not to sob again. Were I a few years (or a few hundred years) younger, I could throw myself on the floor with impunity, but as it is, I simply stand there, gasping for breath. Jack stands there, too, looking down. I wonder if he heard Father call me the stupidest girl on earth. Probably the whole castle did. Finally, he says, “Can I get you something, like a Kleenex?” I have no idea what a Kleenex is, but he reaches into his pocket and procures a bit of paper, sort of a paper handkerchief. I take it and sniffle into it. I try not to snuff too loudly. However, I have been crying very hard. So finally, I have to give in and snort like one of the horses so that, in addition to being the stupidest girl in all Euphrasia—nay, the world—I might also be the most disgusting. To his credit, Jack pretends not to notice, and his kindness sends forth the torrent of tears I have been trying to avoid. 79
  86. 86. When I finish, he says, “My dad can be kind of a jerk, too. But I didn’t think princesses had to deal with that.” “I am not even certain I am a princess any longer. Can I still be a princess if Euphrasia is no longer a country? It is all my fault! I am so stupid!” “You’re not stupid. You messed up. I mess up all the time.” Messed up? I move away from him, wondering if my face is blotchy, if I am hideous now, in addition to being stupid and disgusting. But I catch a bit of my reflection in the mirror attached to the wall. No, Violet’s gift has held true. I am still beautiful. Perfect, in every way save one. He continues. “From what I’m getting, you had a curse placed upon you—that before your sixteenth birthday, you would prick your finger on a spindle. Right?” I nod. “Right.” “My dad, he’s a businessman, and he’s always looking at the wording of things. So that’s how it was phrased? ‘Before her sixteenth birthday, the princess shall prick her finger on a spindle . . .’ not ‘the princess might prick her finger’ or ‘if she is not careful, she will’?” I nod. “But I was supposed to take care. Mother and Father always said—” He holds up his hand. “Meaning no disrespect to them, either. I guess they were trying to protect you, but I don’t think you could have kept from getting pricked with the spindle if it was part of the curse. It had to happen.” 80
  87. 87. “But . . .” I stop. I rather like the way this young man is thinking. In fact, he is quite handsome for a peasant. “Do you really think so?” “I do.” There is conviction in his eyes. “This witch put that curse on you, and that was that—you were going to touch it. Maybe she even enchanted you to make you touch the spindle. It was your destiny.” “Destiny.” I like the sound of it, particularly because it means that this whole fiasco is not my fault. “Yeah, destiny, like how it was Anakin Skywalker’s destiny to be Darth Vader.” I have not the slightest idea what he is talking about. “But that does not change the fact that Father believes me a fool and thinks it is all my fault that our country is ruined.” I remember what Father said earlier, about how he would rather I had run away and eloped. I gaze at Mr. Jack O’Neill. He is tall, and his brown eyes are quite intoxicating, and in that moment, I see my escape. “Do you think perhaps . . . ?” I cannot ask it. But he says, “What, Your Highness?” His eyes are kind as well. “Talia. Call me Talia, for I am about to ask you to . . . take me with you.” “What?” He backs away three steps, as if he has been pushed. When he recovers himself, his voice is a whisper, and he glances at the door. “I can’t.” “Why not? If it is because I am a princess and you are 81
  88. 88. a commoner, this matters not. I am an outcast now. Father despises me. They all . . .” I gesture toward the window, indicating the ground below, the land, the people. “They all shall hate me soon enough. Their crops are dead. Their food has rotted. They should be long dead and rotted themselves, but because of me, they are alive still, only the whole world has changed around them.” “But I’m only seventeen. I can’t be responsible for a princess. I can barely get my homework done.” “Whyever not? Seventeen is a grown man. Surely, you must be learning a trade—like blacksmithing or making shoes.” “Sort of. I go to school. That’s what everyone does now.” Now. Everything is different now. But I must change it. I was destined to prick my finger upon a spindle, and I did. But there was another part of the curse. I was to be wakened by true love’s first kiss. That kiss was Jack’s. Therefore, he must be my true love, even though he seems rather lazy and unpleasant, and I wonder how he could have gotten through the wood to the kingdom. He does not seem to appreciate the great opportunity he has been given, marriage to one gifted by the fairies with beauty and grace and musical talent and intelligence. I must make him realize it. I must make him my true love, if I am going to fulfill my destiny. “Well,” I say, “in any case, you must join us for supper.” 82
  89. 89. “Okay,” he says. “Supper’s okay. Marriage—not so much.” I pretend to agree, but I know that I must make him fall in love with me, whether he wants to or not. 83
  90. 90. Chapter 2: j Jack I ’m wearing something halfway between pants and tights, a red jacket, a ruffly shirt, and boots, all too small. At least they don’t wear kilts in this country. I crack the door (which is ten feet tall) open and look into the hallway. A guard rushes toward me. “May I help you, sir?” “Um, is there any food around here?” The guy looks down. “I shall check, sir.” He doesn’t move. I close the door, my stomach growling like an ATV pulling through mud. It’s been four hours since I kissed the princess. I know that from checking my cell phone, which is now useful only as a clock. I turn it off again to save the battery. It’s not like there’s any place to recharge it. Of course, Travis took the sandwiches with him when 84
  91. 91. he ditched me to go to the hotel. Bet he doesn’t come back. I kept the beer, but it’s probably not a good idea to drink it on an empty stomach. I wonder if this is just a really fancy dungeon. I go to the window for about the tenth time. There’s no chance of escaping out the door. The hallway is crowded with people waiting to do my bidding. But no one wants to help me escape (and, really, where could I go in these pants?). The window’s not much better. It’s at least four stories up and made of this thick glass like in churches. No, my best bet is to have dinner, then sneak out when they all go back to sleep. Of course, after three hundred years, they’re probably pretty well rested. I should have stayed with the tour group. Sure, the museums were boring, but at least the people were from this century. Someone knocks at the door. “Come in!” They knock again. The door’s so thick they can’t even hear through it. I walk across the room and open it. “What?” “Begging your pardon, sir.” It’s some servant guy in an outfit that is—I need to mention—way less froufrou than what they gave me to wear. “His Majesty apologizes for the delay in getting supper. There have been . . . difficulties.” My stomach growls loudly. I’m scared to find out what these people eat. My mom’s 85
  92. 92. a real freak about germs and salmonella, and this doesn’t seem like the type of place that has sanitary cooking facilities or even a decent oven. Didn’t people used to die at, like, age thirty-five in the 1700s, or even younger? And didn’t they have plagues with rats and stuff? If I have to die, I hope I don’t die in tights. What we’re having for dinner is meat. Lots of meat and mushrooms and strawberries. Talia’s parents are there. Her father—the king—is a skinny guy with red hair, and he actually looks sort of like the Burger King, only the Burger King looks a lot friendlier and happy about burgers and stuff. “I apologize for the fare,” he’s telling the group. Besides Talia and me, there’s Pudding Face, the queen (an older version of Talia), and a bunch of other people introduced as lords and ladies. There are also two women Talia says are fairies, but I must have heard her wrong. “But, you see, all our crops died when my daughter put us to sleep for three hundred years, and the food we had has long since spoiled.” Talia looks away, but I can see her hands are trembling. She looks great, though, especially in that dress she’s wearing, a green one you can see down. She’s stopped crying. She sits beside me and keeps staring at me with those eyes of hers. “I am sorry, Father,” she says. When the king doesn’t answer, I see her glance toward the door. 86
  93. 93. I decide to change the subject. “So where’d you get the mushrooms . . . um, Your Highness?” “Your Majesty,” Talia whispers. One of the fairy women turns to the other, and when she does, I see that there are wings sprouting from her back. She whispers, “Him? He’s her destiny?” “Shush,” whispers the other. “That is quite all right, Talia,” the king says. “I am certain this young man is unused to dining with royalty in . . . Florida, is it?” I nod. “A Spanish colony, if I recall, and rather a wasteland. Has it changed much in three hundred years?” “Um, a little.” “The hunters found the mushrooms in the forest,” the king continues. “Are they okay to eat?” I ask. It’s probably a rude question, and actually a hallucinogenic mushroom could hit the spot right about now. The king shrugs. “Does it truly matter at this point?” Talia flinches when he says that. The king takes a large forkful of the mushrooms, chews, and swallows them. We all watch. He doesn’t fall over or barf or anything. “They are acceptable,” he says finally. I don’t ask what the meat is, but Talia says, “Is not the peacock excellent?” “A bit tough after it has been drowsing three hundred years.” The king glares at Talia. “But it will have to do.” 87

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